E-cigarettes and the young – does anyone have a sure way to keep them apart?

It’s the question that goes right to heart of e-cigarette regulation – and anxiety about it – all across the world: How can e-cigarettes be kept out of the hands of young people?

Even in those countries that accept the principle that e-cigs are a useful and valuable tool to help smokers quit, the problem of preventing under-age use causes a lot of hand-wringing.

Inaccurate, and probably unhelpful, talk of an “epidemic” of youth vaping is repeated ad nauseam by legislators and media, often accompanied by dark mutterings about the wicked agenda of tobacco companies luring another generation of vulnerable youngsters into nicotine addiction.

One point the mutterers miss is that stricter regulation is more likely to shut down the smaller, independent members of the vapour industry, leaving the field clear for the supposed evil machinations of Big Tobacco.

Meanwhile, something of an orthodoxy appears to have arisen that what attracts young people to vaping is “kid-friendly” flavours – or, increasingly, any flavour at all other than that of tobacco. This view appears to be held almost religiously by many, on the basis of little evidence other than frequent repetition.

But aside from being conceived as an attack on those many adult vapers who like non-tobacco flavours, are flavour bans actually effective in stopping teenagers from vaping?

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    A new report from the international Consumer Choice Center addresses this issue, looking at existing age restrictions on the sale of vaping products and suggesting other policies to reverse currently low enforcement rates.

    The report’s author Fred Roeder says: “Most countries have already drawn a line of when it is legal to vape. We don’t face a lack of legislation but a lack of compliance with existing rules and regulations. We looked at similarly regulated industries such as alcohol and gambling and found that these tend to have smarter enforcement mechanisms.”

    And the recommendations?

    • “Enforce strict age restrictions on vaping devices and liquids at the point of sale.
    • “Use modern age-verification technology for online sales.
    • “Learn from other industries such as alcohol and fireworks on how to improve compliance rates.
    • “Retail and industry should be encouraged to be more proactive with the enforcement of rules.
    • “Don’t punish legal adult vapers for the lack of enforcement of age restrictions.”

    All fair enough as far as it goes, but rather underwhelming in terms of practical solutions. It amounts more than anything to an expression of attitude.

    And even at that level it will cut little ice with the anti-vape brigade should they choose to look at who the Consumer Choice Center are – in their own words “the consumer advocacy group supporting lifestyle freedom, innovation, privacy, science, and consumer choice”. Or, more to the point, who their backers are – apparently some of those very Big Tobacco firms the brigade identifies as Beelzebub.

    Which leaves us, unhappily, with the original question still lacking a convincing answer. If you have one, please let us know, along with everyone in the business of making, selling or regulating e-cigs anywhere.

    Photo: Rich Smith

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    Aidan Semmens